David Lohmeyer turned up this excellent clip from the original Star Trek series:
Kirk opens the clip by referencing the Nazi “leader principle” (das Führerprinzip). Soon after Hitler’s election as chancellor in 1933, the German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer gave a (partial) radio address and later lectured publicly on the topic of the “leader principle” and its meaning for the younger generation. These texts are important for a number of reasons, not least of which is that Bonhoeffer compares the office of “leader” to a kind of inherent law of life (or natural law) that determines whether or not the leader is actually meeting his responsibilities and obligations. Thus the leader is not beyond the law, as the Nazi version of the principle held.
For “men seeking absolute power,” as Spock puts it, this rule of law must be denied. Therefore the reason that “absolute power corrupts absolutely” is that it arrogates power to a creature that is beyond its inherent nature as creature and distinct from and beholden to a creator. It makes a man into a god.
Thus, writes Bonhoeffer,
People and especially youth will feel the need to give a leader authority over them as long as they do not feel themselves to be mature, strong, responsible enough to themselves fulfill the demands placed in this authority. The leader will have to be responsibly aware of this clear restriction of his authority. If the leader understands his function differently from that thus established, if the leader does not repeatedly provide the led with clear details on the limited nature of the task and on their own responsibility, if the leader tries to become the idol the led are looking for–something the led always hope from their leader–then the image of the leader shifts to one of a misleader, then the leader is acting improperly both toward the led as well as toward himself.
The leader’s function must be balanced, Bonhoeffer continues, with the other orders of the world: “The leader must lead the led into responsibility toward the social structures of life, toward father, teacher, judge, state. The leader must radically reject the temptation to become an idol, that is, the ultimate authority of the led.”
This is, as Bonhoeffer notes, the perennial temptation of those with political power, and it follows from the basic fallenness of humanity. Spock says rightly, “Your whole earth history is made up of men seeking absolute power.” We are, as fallen creatures, constantly creating idols, out of ourselves and our surroundings. As Bones McCoy puts it, when “a man holds that much power, even with the best intentions, [he] just can’t resist the urge to play God.”
It is comforting, I think, that Lord Acton’s wisdom survives into the 23rd century: “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men.”
Over the years Religion & Liberty has compiled a lot of interview gems and first class content for our readers. The new issue, now available online, highlights some of that content, with new material as well. This double issue is an Acton 20th Anniversary tribute with an interview with John Armstrong as well as a collection from some of our best interviews. Regarding the compiled collection, the responses selected represent a range of timeless truths of the Gospel, the importance of human liberty, and the importance of religion and moral formation in society.
There are three book reviews in the issue. Bruce Edward Walker has written a review of Literature & the Economics of Liberty: Spontaneous Order in Culture. Jordan Ballor reviews Carl Trueman’s Republocrat: Confessions of a Liberal Conservative. A main theme from Trueman’s book is that “The gospel cannot and must not be identified with partisan political posturing.” Ballor offers up a clear concise analysis of Trueman’s arguments. I reviewed Richard Reinsch’s book Whittaker Chambers: The Spirit of a Counterrevolutionary. The book was an excellent reminder that there must be more to conservatism than just free-markets and limited government. And in the review I noted:
Just as markets and small government offer little ability in offering peace and happiness, though they certainly create greater space for a working towards that end, this account is a reminder that the best of conservatism is, at its core, within the ancient truths that tower above the vain materialism and individualism of secular Western democracy.
Among the content from our archives to celebrate our anniversary is a piece about Lord Acton by James C. Holland. No Acton anniversary would be complete without something pertaining to Lord Acton. The other article from the archives “Views of Wealth in the Bible and Ancient World” by Scott Rae was originally published in the 2002 November and December issue of Religion & Liberty.
The issue also features an excerpt from Work: The Meaning of Your Life – A Christian Perspective by Lester DeKoster. The book has been newly made available in the second edition by Christian’s Library Press.
There is more content in the issue, so check out all the articles and content online. The biggest challenge on this anniversary project was making decisions about what was going to be included in the issue. Still, there was a lot of great material that had to be excluded only because of space. Thank you for reading, and you can always read and search all of our issues here. Stay tuned for future issues of Religion & Liberty in 2011. We will be kicking off the first two issues with new interviews of two very well known and influential theologians and Church thinkers.
My recent posts on politics and austerity and this week’s Acton Commentary refer to a principled basis for limited government. I speak of “the limits of government rooted in a rich and variegated civil society.”
Here’s a good statement of that basis from Lord Acton:
There are many things government can’t do – many good purposes it must renounce. It must leave them to the enterprise of others. It cannot feed the people. It cannot enrich the people. It cannot teach the people. It cannot convert the people.
Last week Ray Nothstine and I hosted an Acton on Tap focused on the topic, “Putting Politics in its Place.” For those not able to join us at Derby Station here in Grand Rapids, I’m passing along this essay based on my comments. You can find Ray’s comments here.
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“Three Questions for Putting Politics in its Place”
In my attempt to articulate a way to put politics in its proper place I want to pursue three interrelated questions. First, I’m going to ask and answer, “What is politics supposed to do?” Second, I’m going to ask and answer, “What does politics do today?” And finally in light of those two concerns I’m going to ask and give some tentative answers for the question, “What should we do as Christians?”
One of the charges sometimes leveled against classical liberal thought is that it opposes all authority; that it seeks to reduce society to an amalgamation of atomized individuals, eliminating the role of religion, community, and vibrant social institutions.
Historian Ralph Raico seeks to argue the very opposite in his dissertation, The Place of Religion in the Liberal Philosophy of Constant, Tocqueville, and Lord Acton. The work has been republished for the first time by the Mises Institute. (A particularly interesting note is that the chair of Raico’s dissertation committee was none other than F.A. Hayek).
Raico argues that these classical liberal thinkers did not, by any stretch, subscribe to the secularist views of some of their liberal contemporaries. Instead, they found compelling religious justifications for liberty. Contrary to the assertions of some critics of classical liberalism, they also did not oppose all authority: They recognized the essential value of family, church, and other vibrant and flourishing social institutions. These possess what I would venture to call a “natural authority,” a kind of authority and social standing that naturally arises from the workings of a free society (as distinct from the coercive authority of a government or state). Human beings congregate in these groups precisely because we are social animals, and because we identify these institutions as conducive to our flourishing.
As Acton University faculty member Jeffrey Tucker notes:
What resources were available that highlighted this alternative liberal tradition? There weren’t many at the time. It was during this period that Ralph Raico went to work on his dissertation. He hit the target with an extended discussion of three massively important figures in the history of liberalism for whom a religious orientation, and an overarching moral framework, was central for their thought: French Protestant Benjamin Constant (1767–1830), French Catholic Alexis de Tocqueville (1805–1859), and Lord Acton (1834–1902).
All three were distinguished for
- consistent antistatism,
- appreciation for modernity and commerce,
- love of liberty and its identification with human rights,
- a conviction in favor of social institutions such as churches and cultural norms, and
- a belief that liberty is not a moral end in itself but rather a means toward a higher end.
[....] Raico provides a detailed reading of their work in all these respects and shows that one need not embrace statism, and that one can be a consistent and full-blown liberal in the classical tradition [...] Ours is a varied tradition of secularists, yes, but also of deeply pious thinkers. What drew them all together was a conviction that liberty is the mother and not the daughter of order.
As the case for liberty continues to be made, it is important never to neglect this extremely fruitful tradition in classical liberal thought.
Update: I stumbled across a Lord Acton quote that helps illustrate the distinction between the “natural” authority of voluntary institutions in civil society and the authority of the state:
“Authority that does not exist for Liberty is not authority but force.” – Lord Acton
Riffing off of Lord Acton’s quote on liberty and good government, I came up with an analogy that was well-received at last month’s inaugural Acton on Tap.
In his essay, “The History of Freedom in Antiquity,” Acton said the following:
Now Liberty and good government do not exclude each other; and there are excellent reasons why they should go together; but they do not necessarily go together. Liberty is not a means to a higher political end. It is itself the highest political end. It is not for the sake of a good public administration that it is required, but for security in the pursuit of the highest objects of civil society, and of private life.
I tried to think of an image or analogy that captured what Acton meant by “good government.” Perhaps not surprisingly, I came up with a sports analogy.
Fans of various sports, basketball for instance, know that the best games are typically the ones in which you do not notice the referees. Yes, the referees are there, making calls when appropriate. But they do not become the center of attention. They are not the ones putting the ball in the hoop. They are not making a spectacle of themselves. They go about their duties and are at their best when they are not noticed. The referees are not the center of attention; instead, the focus is on the players and the game.
In this analogy, good government is like the referee that calls a fair game and does so in a way that does not produce a slanted playing field, or favor one team over the other. Good government is at its best when it is not the focus and is not grandstanding for attention.
Keep that in mind over the next month while you’re watching the NCAA tournament (and hopefully watching the seemingly-perennial Final Four run from the Michigan State Spartans, this year’s Big 10 co-champs). And be sure to mark your calendars for the next Acton on Tap, Tuesday, March 31, featuring Rudy Carrasco.
NJ Governor Chris Christie: “Today, we come to terms with the fact that we cannot spend money on everything we want.”
Lord Acton: “There are many things the government can’t do – many good purposes it must renounce. It must leave them to the enterprise of others. It cannot feed the people. It cannot enrich the people. It cannot teach the people. It cannot convert the people.”
The topic for the evening will be “The End of Liberty” and will draw on Lord Acton’s claims about the relationship between politics and liberty. Discussion leader Jordan Ballor, associate editor of the Journal of Markets & Morality, will start it off by briefly discussing how politics and liberty relate to human beings’ greatest ends.
Here’s some Food for Thought from Lord Acton: Liberty and good government do not exclude each other, and there are excellent reasons why they should go together. Liberty is not a means to a higher political end. It is itself the highest political end.
Where: Derby Station (formerly Graydon’s Crossing). 2237 Wealthy St. SE, East Grand Rapids 49506. (Thursday special: $2.50 pints). No admission fee or registration required.
When: Thursday, Feb. 25, at 6:00 p.m. (casual start). 6:30 p.m.: Jordan speaks!
About Jordan Ballor:
He graduated in 2004 with a Master of Theology (Th.M.) in systematic theology from Calvin, with a thesis entitled, “Barth, Brunner, and Natural Theology in Bonhoeffer’s Middle Period (1931-1939).” His previous degrees include a Master of Theological Studies (2004-Calvin Theological Seminary) and a Bachelor of Arts in English (2000-Michigan State University/Honors College).
Jordan serves as associate editor of the Journal of Markets & Morality. He has authored articles in academic publications such as The Journal of Religion, Scottish Journal of Theology, and Journal of Scholarly Publishing, and has written popular pieces for newspapers including the Detroit News, Orange County Register, and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
In 2006, Jordan was profiled in the book, The Relevant Nation: 50 Activists, Artists And Innovators Who Are Changing The World Through Faith. His scholarly interests include Reformation studies, church-state relations, theological anthropology, social ethics, theology and economics, and research methodology. Jordan is a member of the Christian Reformed Church in North America (CRC).
The Economist reports on a new study by psychologists that looks into the problem of abuse of power. The researchers attempt to “answer the question of whether power tends to corrupt, as Lord Acton’s dictum has it, or whether it merely attracts the corruptible.”
These results, then, suggest that the powerful do indeed behave hypocritically, condemning the transgressions of others more than they condemn their own. Which comes as no great surprise, although it is always nice to have everyday observation confirmed by systematic analysis. But another everyday observation is that powerful people who have been caught out often show little sign of contrition. It is not just that they abuse the system; they also seem to feel entitled to abuse it.